China Business

China’s Illiteracy Rising

illiteracy in China

The BBC just did an article on rising illiteracy in China, entitled, Work shift lifts China illiteracy. According to the article, the main cause of China’s rising illiteracy rate is farmers’ children “leaving school early in to find work.”

A spokesperson from China’s Ministry of Education said another factor contributing to increasing illiteracy was that local governments had shut down their departments tasked with confronting illiteracy because previous literacy campaigns had been so successful.

China defines literacy as being able to read and write 1,500 Chinese characters. A reader who emailed me with this article is skeptical 1,500 characters constitutes literacy. Is this number too low for defining China literacy?

Just by way of comparison, the CIA Factbook lists the following literacy rates for the four BRIC countries:

  • Brazil —  86.4%
  • Russia — 99.7%
  • India — 59.5%
  • China — 90.9%

48 responses to “China’s Illiteracy Rising”

  1. There is probably a big question as to what is considered “illiterate”. What isn’t fuzzy is the decrease in Mandarin speakers, which may be factored into the illiteracy statictics. Local dialect is demanded when you want to do business, even with local officials, english is the #2 language.

  2. Most people we run into in China are not illiterate. I go to China every year and usually spend most of my time hanging in the over-crowed urban areas in Southeastern China. For the last ten years, I have not met any Chinese unable to read and write, even though I ever went to rural and remote areas a few times. Many provincial labors I encountered were high or junior high graduates, some only completed elementary education. I’m not quite certain what the definition of the illiteracy in China is. I believe the government considers junior high graduation or equivalence as literacy, below as questionable. Statistics, as I read awhile ago, show 13% of the Chinese adult population is illiterate.

  3. I’m a bit suspicious of the high literacy figures often given for China. My parents-in-law can read when pushed, but not with any speed, and they avoid reading when they can.
    There’s a distinction to be drawn between “literate” and “functionally literate” – the latter meaning that you’re literate enough for your job and your lifestyle. I suspect China’s rate of functional literacy is very very high, as many people with weak reading skills work in jobs and live in communities that do not require them to read much. Transplant them to a western country and they’d appear fairly illiterate.
    Even though there’s still a way to go, my impression is that education is one of China’s great successes, but I haven’t been to many remote places, I’m not sure what it’s like out there.

  4. Nanhe…What isn’t fuzzy is the decrease in Mandarin speakers
    Do you have any statistics on this?
    All my Chinese colleagues complain that they can’t get their kids to speak local Changzhou dialect because the kids think it sounds too provincial.

  5. zzyzx —
    I have yet to meet anyone in China whom I know to be illiterate, but that is certainly not a good indicator as I have yet to meet anyone anywhere in the world who is. That means I clearly am not the person to be talking about illiteracy in China (or anywhere else) based on my own “sense” of the way things are.

  6. Phil —
    Thanks for checking in. So is 1500 characters too low a bar? My sense is that the definition of literacy has a pretty low bar everywhere and that it basically just means someone can read well enough to order from a menu and fill out a job application (poorly). I think (but am not sure) that the definition in the US is reading at a 6th grade level.

  7. The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, a Beijing-sponsored test of (mostly passive) Chinese language proficiency, defines a “basic” ?? level of proficiency for which 1,606 characters are required. Some of the reading comprehension questions on this exam suggest a higher standard than basic functional literacy. I’m not sure what purposes this test is used for inside China.

  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy
    A useful measure of literacy should determine who has the skills necessary to act as an integrated member of society.
    Some proposed benchmarks:
    Can a person understand the sex-ed leaflet provided by the government?
    Can a person attend an adult education class to better their job prospects?
    Can a person learn about their legal rights?
    Can a person catch up on the latest farming techniques?
    Personally, I don’t think 1,500 characters (or even 2,000) is enough to do all that. I’d like to hear from someone who really knows their stuff though. David Li, Steve Dickinson — what do you guys think?
    Having stated my scepticism of the high literacy rates, I would like to point out that appreciation for fine literature and poetry does seem to be more prevalent among Chinese. Most admirable of all, love of poetry is spread across all social strata. I don’t think modern Western society can claim the same level of appreciation.

  9. A.E Clark-
    I don’t think the HSK is relevant because it is a test designed to test non-native speakers. Would we use TOEFL to test the literacy of an American?

  10. I learned about the HSK from a Chinese friend, and I took the exam last fall at New York University. The program, which has since been expanded and improved, seemed to have a few kinks at that time: there were virtually no materials available in English about the test and it was offered only once a year outside China. I was especially struck by the delay in getting results: after taking the test in late October, I was notified of the (machine-scorable) result in mid-January and dropped by the organization’s NY office to pick up my back-dated certificate.
    Presumably the HSK fits into a larger campaign (viz., Confucius Institutes) to promote Chinese language and culture around the world. Some say it was modeled on TOEFL; I don’t know how it is actually used in college admissions, but it is described as a “national” exam, so I presume it is used outside Beijing. The program offers two higher-level exams than the basic one I described. The mid-level exam, which is called ?,??, adds another 598 characters. (For each level there are also wordlists, which may provide a better measure of vocabulary than a count of characters. Neither the test nor its official preparation materials hew rigidly to the vocabulary — words & characters not listed appear frequently.)
    I suspect the HSK will become much better known in the years ahead. Perhaps others can comment from their own experience. Anyone thinking of it as an index of functional competence should bear in mind that, until the Advanced level, the candidate is not required to write or speak a single sentence in Chinese.

  11. MOE’s data is based on sampling of less than 0.1% of the total population each year. It fluctuates over the years, though the long-term trend of illiteracy rate is unmistakably lower. The base year which that bit of 30 million more illiterates referred to, is 2000. That year’s data was based on the census data. Moreover, MOE actually conducts tests, and the census only asked the surveyees their own literacy.
    It’s virtually impossible to have a growing illiteracy rate in China as of now. Those entering the bucket (age 15 or older) each year, are far better educated than those leaving the bucket, i.e. death.
    The most frequently used 1500 characters consist of about 96% of the Chinese characters being used in printed media according to a study. What is considered literate can vary. According to the same UN set of data 99.9% of the US population is literate. Knowing what I know about the US population, I tend to believe the 1500 character threshold is actually too high.

  12. other joe:
    “Do you have any statistics on this?
    All my Chinese colleagues complain that they can’t get their kids to speak local Changzhou dialect because the kids think it sounds too provincial.”
    statistics from China? hahhaha. Shanghai: better speak shanghainese, BJ: better put “r” on the end of everything. Guangzhou/HK: better speak cantonese, Fujian: better speak Hakka. Suzhou and Hanghou, each has their own dialect and that is what local use for business.
    And with Chongqing/Chengdu on the way up, brush up on your Sichuan dialect. In undeveloping areas the local dialect is “provincial” in developed/up and coming areas, local lingo is a source of pride and a way to have an advantage over non-locals, including uppity national officials from Beijing.

  13. I believe HSK was developed for Chinese minorities a long time ago.
    Whether it will become better known or not, I think, depends on whether it can be reformed a bit. Like A. E. Clark says, until advanced level candidates aren’t required to speak or write anything; which means, in my view, it’s not a particularly good reflection of the abilities of the candidate. I guess there are other tests Chinese language tests -Taiwan must have one for example, and if HSK doesn’t reform itself I can see a leading foreign university developing their own tests.

  14. @nanheyangrouchuan: So you have no statistics or evidence to offer at all, only your posturing. Again. “Fujian: better speak Hakka” Really? So the other dialects of Fujian, Minnanhua, Minzhonghua and Minbeihua, at least one of which is often referred to as Fujian or Hokkien dialect, would be completely useless? Only Fujian’s Hakka population engages in commerce? I suppose the fact that the overwhelming majority of educated people I meet here in Beijing only speak Putonghua, with a bit of a Beijing accent, to be sure, but certainly not Beijinghua, is also proof of your assertion? I’d agree with the others that Putonghua is on the way up, it’s the language of government, education, commerce (no use sticking with one dialect when modern commerce is spread so far and wide) communication (how many tv programmes have you seen in a local dialect?) and so on and so on and so on….
    As for literacy, which is the point of this thread, I have met a couple of illiterate people here. My wife’s aunt, for example. But an adult literacy tutoring course I did in NZ taught me to beware of “literacy” stats. NZ for many, many years had literacy and remedial reading programmes that were the envy of the world, and yet I was shocked to discover just how many Kiwis struggled with job applications or, more likely, the forms necessary to get the dole (hard to get a job when you can’t read that well). I suspect the same would be true of China, as somebody already suggested, in that most people are as literate as they need to be for their particular lifestyle and career. So complete illiterates are probably very few and far between, but that doesn’t mean most Chinese can pick up a novel and read it through without any difficulty.

  15. Chuan,
    You might be right about Shanghainese who have a rather peculiar interest in having their kids to be fluent in Shanghainese. But do you know of any Shanghai parents who would insist on this at expense of their kids’ fluency in Putonghua. It’s true if you want your kids grow up becoming a small time mob boss on the street, and they gotta be very fluent in their local dialects. But have you ever met a college kids in China who don’t speak Putonghua? Frankly, if you don’t speak Putonghua, you’re gonna have a hard getting a date, unless you’re might be a Lao Wai of certain kind.
    I’m not sure what dialect you speak. You should know that for a lot of Northerners, Cantonese, Hakka, and even Shanghainese are pretty arcane. With an increasingly unified market in China, what advantage you have in speaking one dialect that your potential customers might not understand very well?
    Most importantly, Chuan, speaking a particular dialect has totally no bearing on being literate or illiterate. Take Mao for example, the only language he can say is Hunanese, which is equally arcane for Northerners. Nevertheless, I’d say that he’s quite literate, and he even can write poems. So I don’t know why you made such a fuss about dialects.

  16. Benjamin —
    Wikipedia? Granted you’re suffering from the Great China Firewall, but surely there’s a more reliable source out there? (Not that I necessarily disagree with wikipedia’s proposed defition/benchmarks.)
    “Having stated my scepticism of the high literacy rates, I would like to point out that appreciation for fine literature and poetry does seem to be more prevalent among Chinese. Most admirable of all, love of poetry is spread across all social strata. I don’t think modern Western society can claim the same level of appreciation.”
    What are you basing this on? How many farmers have you met? an appreciation requires some exposure/knowledge of poetry and in my experience, not only do the non-academic youth living in Beijing have no interest/exposure/knowledge of traditional Chinese poetry, neither to the majority of villagers.

  17. Serwat,
    What? You mean Wikipedia isn’t 100% accurate and unbiased? Huh?
    I’m not claiming to have my finger on the pulse of China’s masses, but yes I have met an average Zhou or two and have been suprised to find an interest and knowledge in poetry in people from diverse backgrounds, many of whom would be considered blue collar. A lot of this seems to stem from the popularity of calligraphy as a past-time. You are correct in pointing out that this observation probaby does not play out as well when taking the younger generation into account. Where we disagree seems to be in the frequency of our personal encounters with a person having an interest/exposure/knowledge of traditional Chinese poetry.Maybe you are making a judgement based on an absolute number, and I am comparing it relative to the situation among westerners.
    It is hard to deny that Chinese culture (not at the exlcusion of other cultures) has a strong literary tradition and educational bent. Obviously the value placed on education is not sufficient on its own to overcome the other structural forces working against literacy and education. However, I do think that this cultural aspect is a bright spot in China’s path towards development.

  18. Serwat,
    Actually those were my proposed benchmarks, the wikipedia post was for general edification. I was hoping to get some feedback and see if any of us could reach a consensus on a proper benchmark/litmus test.

  19. “So you have no statistics or evidence to offer at all, only your posturing.”
    And you already know the unreliability of Chinese statistics, then you go ahead and talk about “some person you know”. Individual examples don’t cut it.
    Where do I get my info? From some high school mandarin teachers. Local dialect is a source of pride when your locale is on the rise and a good way to keep non-locals at arms length in business negotiations. Local dialects also give you access to big discounts when looking for an apartment, a car or shopping, even if you are clearly rich. English (and more so, english slang) is the other popular language with the kids because it seperates them from their parents generation and represents “coolness” as well as being a necessity for a decent job.
    Mandarin just isn’t cool, even for foriengers, learning the local lingo gives you a big leg up over foreigners who can only speak mandarin.
    As for literacy, 1500 characters isn’t much when there are 15000 in use. Most expats who have been in China over 3 years and put some effort into learning to read can read 1500 characters, and that is about all you need to read a typical chinese newspaper.

  20. Mr. Clark —
    The delay in getting your test results corresponds with exactly what we are seeing in terms of registering IP and forming companies in China. Everything is taking longer as more applications go in and staffing stays pretty much the same.

  21. “Where do I get my info? From some high school mandarin teachers. Local dialect is a source of pride when your locale is on the rise and a good way to keep non-locals at arms length in business negotiations. Local dialects also give you access to big discounts when looking for an apartment, a car or shopping, even if you are clearly rich. English (and more so, english slang) is the other popular language with the kids because it seperates them from their parents generation and represents “coolness” as well as being a necessity for a decent job.”
    “Mandarin just isn’t cool, even for foriengers, learning the local lingo gives you a big leg up over foreigners who can only speak mandarin.”
    Chuan, rebuttable presumption is that you sounded a bit shabi-ish.

  22. chriswaugh_bj —
    I am sure you are right on this. Illiteracy has to be a very tough thing to measure as those who are illiterate tend not to want that known. How many characters does someone who completes the 5th grade typically know?

  23. nh —
    What you say about local dialects makes sense, but I still find it difficult to believe that they are taking priority over Mandarin.
    So if 1500 is enough to read a typical Chinese newspaper, then it seems to me that is a perfect measure of literacy.

  24. Serwat $ Benjamin,
    Speaking of the appreciation of poetry among ordinary Chinese, instead of “One Nation under God,” there is a saying in China that China is the “Nation of Poetry” (????).
    I guess it has a lot to do with ancient times where there were no pens,papers and books. As a result, historical events, knownledge about farming, fishing, observations about earth and heaven, etc. got passed down over generations in the form of ballad. They could well get addicted to it even after they had pens and papers later on.
    Here is something interesting. A popular Chinese blogger posted an old picture on his blog today. The Picture is about Poetry Slam held in the dead of Cultural Revolution by peasants at Little Jin Village, which is now a suburb of Tianjin, I believe. Take a look at the picture over here.
    The Chinese characters in the picture read “Little Jin Village Peasants Poetry Slam.”
    Given the historical background, the poems they had must be BS. But you get the point, it isn’t too far off to beleive that Chinese villagers can appreciate poetry.
    Personally, back in China, I forgot about myself, but some of my cousins can recite a couple of Tang poems while they were still under potty training. Normally the usual stuff like “bed front bright moon light.” Not sure how many western parents incorporate poetry exposure into their kids’ preschool curriculum. Did you, Dan?

  25. sepa: “Chuan, rebuttable presumption is that you sounded a bit shabi-ish”.
    Wow, you are a fantastic debator.
    CLB: “What you say about local dialects makes sense, but I still find it difficult to believe that they are taking priority over Mandarin.”
    In the schools, no. Teachers can’t break the agenda laid down from above. But when the kids are at home: local lingo, out with friends: local lingo, negotiating while shopping with or without the parents: local lingo. When they go to a local university: local lingo outside of class, especially to keep secrets from non-locals and this carries on into their careers or as local entrepreneurs.
    “So if 1500 is enough to read a typical Chinese newspaper, then it seems to me that is a perfect measure of literacy. ”
    Perhaps, but I would expect higher standards of what is “literate”. 1500 characters won’t get you through any books written by any of China’s famous authors from the early 20h century and certainly not through any of the classics.

  26. If you ask a Mandarin teacher when you first start learning, how many characters you need to read a newspaper they will tell you 1,500. The problem is, when you reach the 1,500 mark you discover that it is only enough to read 90% of a newspaper. The 1,500 characters represent the most frequently used characters. However, the most important characters in comprehending a news article will invariably be ones that you have never come across. Or, even if you know the individual characters you may not be familiar with their combination to form this particular word. For example,the Chinese for nuclear reactor is ????. The individual characters by themselves are not difficult: ?: pit or stone (but in this case an atom!); ?: to turn over; ?: very common character, but not sure of the proper definition here, maybe respond/react or application of technology; ?: a pile (or stack?). Therefore, you could know the most common characters but still not be able to comprehend just exactly what all the fuss is with Iran/DPRK solely by reading the printed word.
    So, is being able to read 90% of a newspaper article useful as one of the many various aspects that will make up functional literacy? To understand the other 10% of characters that pop-up less frequently you probably need to double the character count.
    Disclaimer: these figures are not based on any so-called “facts” or “statistics”.
    For fun, here is a wonderful site which displays news stories in Chinese and has a built in scroll-over function for displaying the English when you get stuck:

  27. @nanheyangrouchuan: If I’m not allowed to use people I’ve met as examples, what are you doing quoting “local Mandarin teachers”? Secondly, you say: “But when the kids are at home: local lingo, out with friends: local lingo, negotiating while shopping with or without the parents: local lingo. When they go to a local university: local lingo outside of class, especially to keep secrets from non-locals and this carries on into their careers or as local entrepreneurs.” Sounds like every other country in the world to me. Put two Singaporeans together, they speak Singlish; put two Kiwis together and any eavesdropping American will start to look confused before long; put two Texans together and any non-Texan present will make for the door…. So what? Mandarin is still the prestige dialect. Singaporeans, Kiwis and Texans are all perfectly capable of making themselves understood to each other by modifying their English to something more “internationally standard”. Why should China be any different? How do your examples prove that China is any different?
    Back to literacy: Being able to understand 90% of a newspaper sounds like a decent definition of functional literacy to me. New words and new characters can easily be checked by looking in a dictionary or asking somebody with a better level of literacy. Again, this doesn’t sound too different from English or any other language. Sure, being able to read a newspaper doesn’t mean you can understand a good novel, but again, this doesn’t sound any different from any other language. And so what if 1500 is a very small proportion of the 15,000, 20,000, 30 billion characters that are claimed to exist? Once again, this is no different from any other language. If “90% of Chinese are literate” means 90% of Chinese people can understand 90% of what is written in their local newspaper (allowing for local languages in minority areas) then I don’t see a problem.

  28. Benjamin —
    You are just a font of interesting websites.
    I find it so funny that you should use nuclear reactor as your example because I always use nuclear bomb as an example of where my French is. I say that back when I was fluent, I could instantly come up with the words “nuclear bomb,” but now that I have forgotten so much, I can still convey the meaning, but I would probably have to say something like “une tres grande bombe comme Hiroshima.”

  29. chriswaugh: “If I’m not allowed to use people I’ve met as examples, what are you doing quoting “local Mandarin teachers”? ”
    I’m repeating what I’ve been told by subject matter experts, including former tutors of mine who remarked at the willingness and desire of foreigners to learn mandarin as compared to their students. Your “person on the street” does not compare as either an SME or someone with relevant exposure to today’s chinese kids.
    I’ve heard Kiwi english and it is confusing, but it is easier to keep up with Aussie and Brit english. Cantonese, Shanghainese, the Fujian languages, Hunanese, etc. are seperate languages with their own grammar rules. These all used to be seperate countries with seperate languages between 750 to 4000 years ago. “Texan” english does not have its own grammar rules and kids do not require 5th through 12th grade educations to learn “standard” english as a distinct language from “Texan english”. Undereducated elderly people in Texas are not lacking in the ability to communicate with people outside of their locale. A grandmother in China, most likely to be uneducated, cannot communcate with anyone outside her locale. Heck, Suzhou and Hangzhou dialect are different and they are in the same province. Suzhou and Shanghai dialect are different and they are only a 1 hour drive from each other.
    Mandarin is the language of the empire in much the same way that Latin was for the Romans and later the Catholic Church. A common language among the northern tribes is what is believed to have allowed them to conquer the more advanced southern tribes to create “China”.
    Now how do we measure literacy in the US? Reading the local paper in the US proves some degree of literacy, but if a high school or college student can’t read Mark Twain, you could say there is a defficiency. The same applies for China’s classics. Lao She, Bing Xin and Lu Xun are not “existential philosophy”, they are late 19th to early 20th century high caliber writers and 1500 characters is not enough.

  30. I apologize for bringing a dead thread back to life, but this is an important topic. A big-picture perspective needs to be taken here. Setting aside exact character thresholds, for an individual to be able to possess a minimum level of literacy that allows them to get through their everyday life is great, who cares if they can’t read the classics or college-textbooks? Well, the problem is when a large proportion of the population only has this minimum level of literacy. How is an economy (any economy, not just China’s) supposed to move up the value chain without a sufficiently educated citizenry?

  31. Benjamin, glad you asked. This can become a long discussion… I’ll limit to the number of new university enrollments (including both 2 & 4 year programs) in the following years:
    1975: 0
    1985: 1.41 million
    1995: 1.94 million
    2005: 6.93 million
    Just to show you what this means in the grand scheme of things: in 2005, roughly about 4.1 million Americans turned 18.

  32. JXie,
    your 1975 figure is wrong. Most universities closed down for about 2 years during the Red Guard uprising which started in 1966. By 1975, the vast majority were operating again, people were learning English, and there were even foreign students in China.

  33. In a sense you are right, Other Joe. There were ????? (worker/peasant/soldier students) enrolled in universities between 1970 and 1976. College “education” was very different back then, e.g. the story of ???. The College Entrance Exam was suspended between 1967 and 1776.
    I couldn’t find out the number of enrollments in 1975 specifically. In 1970 when universities were first opened to ?????, the total enrollments were about 40,000.

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